It’s 7:32am on a Monday, and per my “day-after-a-long-weekend” protocol, I’ve snoozed my alarm more times than I can count. Through the brain fog, I hear the short, high-pitched beeping of my automatic coffee pot, which interests me enough to flop my covers off, wiggle my feet into my favorite fuzzy slippers, and shuffle out of bed. The mere aroma of brewing coffee foreshadowing the perfect cup of joe is my motivation to take on the morning.
I cradle my hands around my go-to coffee mug and let the magic happen. With that first sip, I feel a rush of happiness that makes the rest of my worries slip away. I’m all about giving credit where credit is due, so I have to give accolades to the hero of this short story: dopamine, would you accept this rose?
When we hear a text alert, engage in a chat with our best gal pal, bite into our favorite gooey brownie, or find the perfect pair of snakeskin booties, dopamine–a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure—floods our brain. While it’s true that dopamine is known to play a key role in our brain’s reward system, dopamine is much more complex than that. According to Psychology Today, it also “boosts mood, motivation, and attention, and helps regulate movement, learning, and emotional responses.” Additionally, it plays a role in addiction. Per Psychology Today, “a person seeking pleasure via drugs or alcohol or food needs higher and higher levels of dopamine.”
A new, buzzy wellness approach to the dopamine downside? Dopamine fasting. In short: dopamine fasting is taking a break from the pleasures in life that have the potential to become addictive.
Why in the world would you want to fast from dopamine?
That’s exactly the question that many lay-people and neuroscientists alike ponder at the mention of dopamine fasting, the fad that is taking over Silicon Valley. According to Healthline, those participating in the trend hold off from partaking in activities that bring them pleasure. You heard me correctly: no social media, no binge-watching Gilmore Girls, no chatting with your best friend over brunch. You get the point. But is this extremist practice what was originally intended by those who proposed the original concept?
According to Vox, the practice was popularized in 2019 by Cameron Sepah, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In an article he published on LinkedIn, Sepah introduced a new form of dopamine fasting as “a way to restrict [addictive behaviors] to specific periods of time, and practicing fasting from impulsively engaging in them in order to regain behavioral flexibility.” He went on to explain how classical conditioning (you remember Pavlov’s cute pup from Psych 101) and dopamine play a crucial role in helping us to learn.
He wrote, “with enough training, unconditioned stimuli we’ve never seen before—like a red dot or notification on your smartphone—can become conditioned stimuli, because we learn to anticipate a reward (the negative reinforcement of alleviating our negative emotions, or the positive reinforcement of seeing a novel thing). This ‘double reinforcement’ can lead to impulsive/addictive behavior since every time we feel bored, anxious, angry, sad or lonely, we seek those things that both numb the bad feeling and distract our attention with pleasure.” He went on to note that the idea behind dopamine fasting is rooted in the cognitive-behavioral therapy theory of “stimulus control,” for example, turning your phone off or leaving it at home altogether (gasp!). Sepah noted that by either removing the stimulus or being in-tune to your emotions related to the urge, classical conditioning is then “weakened” and behavioral control (as opposed to impulsiveness) is regained.
Picture the scenario where you post a fire IG and wait for the likes and comments to roll in. Every time you get the push notification to your home screen, your brain is being conditioned to anticipate a “reward” which can look like two things:
- Negative reinforcement that could look like alleviating our negative emotions of feeling like the photo “bombed.”
- Positive reinforcement in the form of nice comments and likes that signify support.
What do other experts think about all of this?
In an interview with Healthline, Kent Berridge, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, acknowledged that when it’s not taken to the extreme, “dopamine fasting is a great strategy” but noted that “it’s not the entire solution. We can’t just ask the world to go away and not tempt us anymore.”
Russell Poldrack, a Standford psychologist and neuroscientist, seemed to agree in an interview with Insider. In his discussion, he noted that while dopamine plays a role in pleasure, it’s incorrect to solely connect the ideas of pleasure with the neurotransmitter. He suggests that we should view the practice as a “stimulation fast” rather than a dopamine fast. “You can totally block the dopamine system and it doesn’t change a human or an animal’s ability to feel pleasure,” Poldrack told Insider. “What it changes is the degree to which they want things out in the world, and the degree to which they will actually go do something to get those things.”
He continued to state to Insider, “Even if you go to a week-long meditation retreat, your dopamine system is still running during that week. It’s doing different things, but it’s not as if you turn off the system.” So if you delete Instagram or take that break from your phone, you’re not going to “turn off” your dopamine response.
In the previously mentioned article by Sepah, he acknowledged that there is a large amount of misunderstanding that he contributes to media reporting, and intended to clear the air by outlining what dopamine fasting isn’t. He notes that it isn’t reducing dopamine—that one misconception alone being a large reason experts jump to disprove his theory—but rather focusing on reducing impulsive behavior. It’s not avoiding all stimulation, only “specific behaviors that are problematic for you.” It’s not abstaining from “talking, socializing, or exercising.” The goal is not to avoid all stimuli. The goal is to replace those problematic behaviors (such as thrill-seeking, gambling, emotional eating, using recreational drugs, or shopping) with those that reflect your values, such as serving others, writing, reading, cooking, relating with others, or exercising.
So let’s return to our Instagram example. If you’re finding posting a picture and becoming consumed with the feedback (or lack of feedback), you might view your usage of Instagram as problematic. So instead of posting a picture with the hopes of feeling validated, replace it with what truly makes you feel whole. Call a friend, go on a walk, volunteer at an animal shelter, or bake a cake…whatever floats your boat.
Naturally, the accounts that catch our attention are the extremes. The article “How to Feel Nothing Now, in Order to Feel More Later” published in The New York Times gives readers an inside look at a day in the life of three dopamine fasters in San Francisco. James Sinka, a faster and startup founder, stated, “I avoid eye contact because I know it excites me.” He goes on to describe an account of running into an old friend on the street, but having to cut the conversation short to abide by his dopamine fast. Sinka told The New York Times that after he fasts, he finds everyday tasks are more exciting and fun.
If you’re not ready for dopamine fasting, you may want to try this instead.
In an interview with Vox about whether or not dopamine fasting is worth the hype, Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Brown University, weighed in, noting that based on the theories of cognitive behavioral therapy, he agrees that if we don’t take breaks from overstimulating activities, we’ll seek out higher levels of stimulation. But he doesn’t think it’ll likely have a very long-term effect. “You can force yourself to fast, but that’s not actually going to be useful in the long term,” Brewer told Vox.
His solution? Mindfulness. He told Vox that it’s much more sustainable to tune into the emotions that you’re having during and after said activity. If you’re trying to knock a bad habit, like scrolling on Instagram and comparing yourself to others, tapping into your emotions and realizing the way said habit actually makes you feel (maybe you feel sad, lonely, inferior) and associating the activity with poor feelings, it’s easier to moderate the behavior. He suggests that mindfulness allows you to pay attention to your senses during an experience in real-time, which is more sustainable in the long run.
At its roots and in moderation, dopamine fasting doesn’t necessarily sound like the worst idea, but it seems as though Silicon Valley extremists—those who have taken dopamine fasting to an unbelievably drastic degree—have given it plenty of attention, with the biggest side effect being a misunderstanding of the concept as a whole.
As for me, I’ll still be looking forward to that 7:32am beeping of my coffee pot and will welcome that dopamine with open arms. No Silicon Valley trend can come between me and my morning cup of joe.